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'Doc McStuffins' counts Michelle Obama among its fans as it brings diversity to preschool TV

"Doc McStuffins" is an animated series about a six-year-old girl who runs and operates a clinic for broken toys and worn out stuffed animals out of the playhouse in her backyard.
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Every weekend from now until the end of February will be jammed with some sort of awards show, tribute, reception or screening. On Saturday night, it's the animators' turn. The annual Annie Awards will take place honoring the best in animated entertainment — both in film and television.

This year’s nominees include big budget films like "The Lego Movie" and the preschool television series "Doc McStuffins." It's a Disney Jr. show about a little girl who takes care of sick toys and stuffed animals.


Over more than two seasons on the air, the show has gained a huge following and become a cultural reference point for discussing race on television. That’s because the main character is an African-American girl. 

Early adult fans of the show included black, female doctors who started a group called "We Are Doc McStuffins." And this past November, Michelle Obama invited Chris Nee, the show's creator, to screen an episode at the White House. 

Nee is a mother, and it was her son’s battle with asthma and frequent trips to the doctor that gave her the idea for the show. The Frame's John Horn sat down with Nee to talk about diversity in TV, the show's growing profile and her goals in the industry.

Interview Highlights

Where's your source of inspiration?

This was 15 minutes of pure inspiration in the shower. And when I got out I said, "Either somebody [has] done this before or I'm going to sell this show." You can't possibly imagine the things that have happened since were going to happen, but I knew I had something and couldn't believe no one had done it before. 

A lot of women doctors have gotten behind this show. And a lot of African-American women doctors have gotten behind the show. But "Doc McStuffins" wasn't originally written as an African-American girl, correct?

Correct. She was very early on in the process. Disney came to me and said, "We are looking for a show that has diversity in it." We had not done any artwork, so there was no visual representation of this character. And they said, "How would you feel about her being African American?" I said, "Great." Honestly, that was the whole conversation... You just have to go back over your scripts and say, "What can I change," instead of saying, "A generic person in the crowd, three women and two men are in the crowd." I wish we weren't at the point where we had to do that, but those choices can be so simple in the [script] page when you do them early, and the ramifications are huge. 

A lot of people like Geena Davis and Tony Hale have come on the show. Do you think people are participating on the show because they're parents whose kids watch the show? 

A lot of them are because they are fans. Twitter has helped me out a couple of times. Patton Oswalt kept mentioning the show on his stuff and I went on Twitter, which I have [but] didn't really know how to use it. I was like, "Hey, I have a part for you."cAnd I swear to God that in two hours that deal was done. And Geena Davis, I have to say money where her mouth is ... Gender issues are obviously a huge focus for her and Doc really represents the STEM curriculum. I then said, "Hey, want to come on back and give us a little bit of your fame and put it towards the show, will you come on and do a voice?" And she said yes right away.

There's been a lot of talk in the film world right now about the underrepresentation of African-Americans at the Academy Awards and among filmmakers and actors. What is it like in preschool TV? Is it getting a little bit more diverse? 

I think it is. And I think Doc has actually showed all of the networks that this show is going to do really well — you just need great storytelling, great characters and the diversity is this great bonus, you're going to touch all these other people in a powerful way. I certainly try to make sure my staff is diverse. We make sure that our voice cast represents the ethnicity that they are playing. We feel like, on this show, it's incredibly important.

As the creator of this show, how important is it to you and what kind of oversight do you have to make sure that spinoff properties — toys and electronics — are reflective of the kind of culture and statement that you want the show to make?

In terms of the marketing and the product on the show, it's opened up a huge barrier. And I think it's important to note that we are the first African-American toy to be selling in such a huge way. In the end of the day we know that these are all a business. I hope that this show is going to affect the bottom line of whether people are going to make more diverse shows. I'm thrilled with what's happened with the product line on this show. In terms of quality, of keeping the quality up, every time there's something big written, whether it's the show in the park or the stage show [at Disney's California Adventure], I write them myself. It's not easy to find time to do that stuff [but] I look at it as hard as I can. 

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